Cancel Culture is Not Real

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John Cleese is a well read, intelligent and usually eloquent man. He’s made some pertinent observations in the past, ones about which nobody can doubt his good intentions. However, I could say exactly the same about Enoch Powell.

Lately Cleese has swallowed the concept of Cancel Culture and is banging on about it like some old white men have become prone to in the past few years. Actually, I get his point, but the problem is – for the most part – his, not ours. Graham Norton hits the nail on the head, Cleese is finding himself accountable for his words for the first time and he’s not dealing with that all too well.

Going after someone’s platform because you don’t like what they’re saying is nothing new. The soap box had barely been invented before it was kicked out from beneath a speaker because someone didn’t like what they were saying. It might be underhanded and cowardly, it might be a better world if nobody did it, but it’s commonplace and always has been.

What’s changed, then? Freedom from the consequence of your words is a privilege, but whereas in the past someone in a position such as Cleese would be above the threshold for that, they now find themselves below it. That’s it, pure and simple.

“But”, I hear you ask, “if it’s a matter of privilege, shouldn’t we be trying to extend that out to everyone?”

In an ideal world freedom of speech would be an absolute. But even in that ideal world, all freedom of speech means is freedom from sanction or oppression by the state (or state actors). In theory everything is (or could be) controlled by the government, so it’s paramount to the functioning of a democracy that you must be able to criticise the government without fear of sanction from the government or its agents. That’s the fundamental reason we have a right to freedom of speech.

There are two key points here:

  • You may speak, but nothing about free speech says anyone has to listen or give you a platform.
  • Your only indemnity is against sanction from the government and its agents. The right to free speech doesn’t protect you against any other consequences.

Yes, of course we can argue about the extent of the agents of the government, but if your local pub throws you out for trying to hold Combat 18 meetings there, that isn’t a freedom of speech issue.

Enter The Internet

Let me put a hypothesis to you. The Internet has changed our lives enormously. It’s facilitated (more) direct targeting, but it’s also added a horizontal layer across public channels that wasn’t previously there.

What do I mean? In 1968 you could go to the pub with your similarly minded friends and spout whatever nonsense you liked. You’d be very unlucky if there were any negative consequences – but that’s only because nobody who was interested heard you. Even politicians could get away with making inflammatory speeches to local party groups, because nobody outside the room was listening. Enoch Powell had to actually tell the media that he was going to “send up a rocket” in order to get himself cancelled, otherwise his ill-judged “Rivers of Blood” speech might have slipped by unnoticed.

The Internet (and technology in general) has changed that. You might subscribe to The Telegraph or The Guardian. Think of them as vertical channels, they feed you news based content on a variety of different topics, applying their own particular filters and biases.

In 1968 a lot of people kept newspapers for a few days, so that if something came up they could look back at what was being said. They were staying in vertical channels.

https://twitter.com/mikegalsworthy/status/1584463739566583809

In 2022 if you want to find out what’s going on, you Google it, and Google doesn’t just give you your favourite news source, it gives you a selection of articles from all the major news sources. You can take a horizontal view, you can easily see what each different channel has to say about a particular topic.

This should be a great advantage, but people don’t do it because, sadly, people don’t like having their opinions challenged. Anyway, they’re not the people we’re talking about…

Expand this vertical versus horizontal concept to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Your normal audience on these platforms might be just your friends – the vertical – but they are public and unless you’ve locked your account, your posts can be found in searches and by algorithms covering any topic.

There are numerous groups and interested parties out there working on the horizontal, searching for, picking up on things and amplifying them. When someone with a significant platform says something they agree with, they amplify that. It gets retweeted, copied around Facebook groups, WhatsApp groups, people talk about it on YouTube and TikTok, etc. It can result in the person getting quite a boost, both in exposure but also directly through stuff like Patreon, Paypal, BuyMeACoffee etc.

Exactly the same thing happens when someone says something they disagree with. The signal gets amplified and as a result people start to go after the person’s platform, their employer, start campaigns to boycott the person’s products and businesses etc.

That’s it. That is the primary explanation for the illusion of Cancel Culture. The Internet giveth and The Internet taketh away.

Cleese; an awful lot of white suburbia, rent-a-gobs and bigots do like to stand on the battlements of their castles and yell at the peasants, certain that they are protected. But everyone’s castle is, ultimately, built on sand. Society, culture and technology change. If you don’t adapt to the changing sands, your castle will fall and you’ll end up confused, angry and lashing out at ghosts.

Nobody, it seems, is more resistant to change than old white men.

They Do Have A Point, Though…

At the top I said it was mostly their problem. The fact that something is doesn’t make it right. Of course it’s right that people should be held to account for their actions, even those who haven’t in the past, but what happens is not always proportional or just.

Many years ago someone overheard me explaining The Great Replacement (a racist conspiracy theory) and mistakenly assumed I was advocating it. That person then set about what we might call today a campaign to cancel me. It took a lot of effort for me to counter that negative campaign.

Forward fast that story to today. Imagine how much further, faster that negative campaign might have got. We can see this played out on social media time and again.

Sometimes it’s a few words taken out of context and suddenly that person is the enemy.

Other times someone might give a genuinely ill informed opinion. By that I mean that their opinion was earnest, but it was based on something they’d believed but which was wrong or they didn’t realise they were lacking critical information.

They might get a few responses saying “Hey, I think you should read this…” but the storm starts immediately. The saying “bad news travels fast” is much older than The Internet, but The Internet amplifies it greatly. Conversely, “Highly Knowledgeable Person Expresses Well Reasoned Opinion” never made a headline, so the defence, the full context, the revision of an opinion never has the reach that the initial sensationalism does.

Unjustified damage is done and valid, useful arguments are lost.

It’s Mixed Bag, Then.

I’m hypothesising here, of course. I don’t know that The Internet and effortless global communication are the primary cause of these changes in our society, but at a kind of amateur sleuth level it seems rather plausible.

What we can say is that anyone who’s ever lived in a deprived area understands what accountability for their words means. As Ice-T so neatly observes, “Talk Shit, Get Shot.” Whilst we clearly want accountability to be fair, just and not involve getting “Sprayed with the ‘K”, we want it to apply equally to everyone. If all we’re seeing is accountability being extended to people who previously weren’t, that’s no bad thing.

How to Spot a Racist, Method #473

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When angry people are protesting on the streets things do sometimes boil over. Opponents of the protests will seize on this immediately, firstly as an attempt to discredit and devalue the protest but also to distract attention from the cause. Opponents of protests have even infiltrated them and deliberately tried to start riots for those very purposes.

Of course the media machine – be it social media or traditional media – of those opponents will go into overdrive, trying to draw maximum attention to any riots and looting (and even fabricating stories about it).

Right now a lot of people around the world are very angry at the institutional racism of the Police in the USA and the continuing abuse and murder of innocent black people. There is no argument that the police in the USA is institutionally racist. The evidence is overwhelming. The question is who thinks it a problem and who does not.

The people that do think it’s a problem are amplifying that message.
The people who think the police should be racist are amplifying the messages about riots and looting.

Poppies

Reading Time: 4 minutesA few years ago I took the very deliberate decision to stop wearing a remembrance poppy, because I actually believe in remembrance.

Take a look around social media in the few days around November 11th and you’ll see an awful lot of messages simply thanking military personnel for their service.

That is only half the message of remembrance. Not only that but without the other half it’s a dangerous message because it’s easily corrupted.

We sleep-walked into the First World War. The warning signs were there years before. They were noticed, alarm bells were rung, governments were advised: “unless we change course,” they were told, “there will be war”. The warnings were ignored and there was the most terrible war the world had ever seen.

The economic and social devastation of the First World War pretty much guaranteed the subsequent rise of populism, particularly in the hardest hit countries. That does not however mean that the rise of the Nazi Party was inevitable. They could and should have been stopped.

Martin Niemöller’s seminal “First They Came” highlights just one thing – that it was within the power of ordinary people to stop it. However we stood aside and did nothing and by doing so damned a whole generation.

Tens of millions died in two catastrophic wars, both of which were entirely avoidable.

For me that has always been the meaning of the phrase “Lest we forget…” We must remember the senseless waste of two generations. We must never again sleep-walk, or let ourselves be led as lambs into another unnecessary war.

If you want that put in transparent, soul-piercing clarity Siegfried Sassoon was there:

AFTERMATH

Have you forgotten yet?…
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked awhile at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same,—and War’s a bloody game….
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz,—
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench,—
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack,—
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads,—those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the Spring that you’ll never forget.

Make no mistake, I am not a pacifist. There are times where war is the only practical solution. And of course I support The Royal British Legion and Help For Heroes, of course I have enormous respect for those who are prepared to lay down their lives to defend the free way of life.

There is a very important distinction however between the individuals who serve and those who would lead us into war. The latter, we must reflect, is substantially our fault: in a democracy we are the ones that set the agenda.

In remembrance it is therefore not sufficient simply to thank those who have given military service. We must take time to reflect on why their service – and in many cases sacrifice – was needed. We must reflect on our failure as the people of the United Kingdom, the people of Europe, to prevent two devastating wars and numerous conflicts since.

Moreover those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We can see, very clearly, where the mistakes that led to each war, each conflict were made. It is imperative that we learn those lessons.

Currently some of The Poppy’s most ardent supporters are far right groups. Far from being reflective and contemplative on the horrors of war, these groups delight in militaristic imagery and seek to glorify military conflict.

They even use The Poppy and the concept of remembrance to try to shut down their critics, “Your grandfathers!” they scream, “Your grandfathers didn’t give their lives so that…”

Economic stagnation breeds populism. Austerity breeds populism. Populism inevitably veers either toward communism or fascism. These are delicate times and we, those of us who are sufficiently well informed to understand this, have a duty to try to steer our countries away from those extremes.

This is why I don’t wear a poppy: because I believe that it is not an effective means of communicating how I feel about remembrance. Because most people just pin the badge on because they think they ought to without really understanding it. Because that lack of understanding is easily corrupted into support for very people that Remembrance was designed to condemn. Because I’m scared that as the generation that fought the Second World war dies out, the memory how of terrible, how devastating it was and why we must never allow history to repeat itself will die too.

Because I’m scared that we will wear The Poppy and tell ourselves that we have not forgotten when in truth we have.

Cultural Erosion

Reading Time: 2 minutesCultural erosion is often cited as an argument against European Integration. A fortnight ago I was in a Belgian roadside café. They had three different types of mayonnaise in pump dispensers and a man sat eating moules marinière with a tiny bottle of rosé.

Britain has always been a bit special – and that’s not just British exceptionalism speaking. We have always been sailors, explorers; we are a diverse nation that includes cultural elements from all over the globe. It’s one of the things that make us strong.  The question we have to ask however is whether these cultures complement British culture or erode it.

The culture of Britain is under no substantive threat from other Europeans.

Every British town has a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and Starbucks. We watch Amazon Prime and Netflix, Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, Disney, Discovery. We don’t eat moules marinière in roadside cafés, we eat Burger King. We don’t watch François Truffaut films, we watch 20th Century Fox Movies. The biggest threat of cultural erosion that Britiain faces is from the USA.

Remember:

  • Burgers are foreign food
  • Coke is a foreign drink
  • Hollywood is foreign cinema

Other European cultures aren’t immune either, they are more protected because of language but you still find American chains, American food, American films and TV wherever you are in Europe.

We can be much more effective in resisting cultural erosion, from wherever it comes, if Europe works together. The preservation and enhancement of European cultures is a specific objective of the European Union. Far from trying to homogenise European culture there are programmes in place trying to designate, protect and promote individual European cultures (and that includes British culture).

Yes, we are a bit special because we are an island. We mustn’t get carried away with that and think that our past, our present and our future is not inherently tied up with that of the rest of Europe, because it is. Europe is stronger if it acts together, Britain is stronger if it acts with Europe.

Let’s Go to the Winchester…

Reading Time: 4 minutesDon't Vote Leave...It hit me about 4pm today that although I’ve done a lot of myth debunking on social media and directed people to well supported articles, I haven’t actually expressed my opinion on the EU Referendum.

It was inevitable.

In the UK we’ve had something like 8 years of economic stagnation. Whenever something like that happens there are certain things that history tells us will follow. People will lose faith in the politicians of the day and start looking for answers elsewhere. New movements will spring up saying that they have the answers. The things they say are always the same, we need to break free of regulation, bureaucracy and red tape, we need to empower the individual, the problems are caused by some external entity (usually immigrants) and most of all we need to take our country back and make it great again.

Right now that’s Farage, Trump, Le Penne, Marusik, etc.

These things are not the answers because the sad, soul crushing reality is that there are no answers right now.

Our problems are not caused by our membership of the EU, Boris Johnson said as much in 2013, I’m paraphrasing but basically “the only thing leaving the EU would achieve is to make Britain face up to the fact that its problems are not caused by the EU.”

Our problems are caused by a combination of the poor performance of the global economy and our own mistakes and inadequacies. We have consistently failed to invest in public services and infrastructure. We have failed to properly regulate the financial sector. Time and time again we have put short term gains before the necessary long term strategy. These things and others are the cause of our current malaise, not our EU membership.

I can’t believe it, but I basically agree with what Boris said in 2013 (I disagree on many of the details, BTW).

Leaving the EU will not bring us any significant gain, even in the areas that the Leave campaign are targeting.

If we stay in the Free Trade Area (like Norway and Switzerland) we will have to accept almost all of the EU’s rules, including the free movement of people.
At the moment we’re one of the big 3, with France and Germany we’re the most influential countries in Europe. We’d lose that so we’d effectively lose sovereignty – because at the moment we have some control.

It would also make democracy worse as at the moment we all have a voice through the UK government and through our MEPs. We’d lose that.

I’m sure I needn’t point out that the proposed points system on immigration is highly unlikely to be acceptable to the EU if we remain in the Free Trade Area.

So we’re talking about a substantial divorce from Brussels, that’s the only way we can get any freedom of movement on immigration. Sovereignty and democracy are more complex arguments but neither would be a cavalcade of success. They’re both pretty minor gains if you analyse them in depth (NATO, WTO, IMF, UN, House of Lords, FPTP etc).

The problem with this is that even the Leave campaign recognise that this would hit our economy hard. Unemployment would rise, the welfare bill would rise and the economy would slow down long term. The slower the economy the less money there is flowing around the less the government gets in tax, the less we can afford to pay out in welfare and services. Even a tiny slowing would eclipse the EU membership fee from the government’s budget so what we’re facing here is not investment in services like the NHS, but even more and ever more severe cuts at a time when we really, really don’t need that because half our problems are caused by our failure to invest in the past.

The numbers can only work if we remain in the Free Trade Area which gains us nothing but a tiny bit of pride. It’s pointless.

There’s no quick fix for the situation we’re in, it’s going to be a long hard slog but there will be an upturn. When there is there’ll be more money flowing in the economy so the government will get more in tax and we can afford to put right some of the mistakes of the past.

If we stay we can hold our heads high, we’ll be at the top table of the EU, the largest market in the world, a major player on the world stage. If we leave we seriously risk becoming an ever more irrelevant and isolated sad little island.

I am proud to be from Suffolk, proud to be English, proud to be British. I care about this country and I care about its place in the world, so I will be voting to remain a member of the European Union.

 

[You will appreciate this is rather a hasty hack of an article, I haven’t really had time to properly reference it and I’ve glossed over a lot of detail that I would have included if I had longer]